Iraq’s back-to-school pains

A student works in  a math class at Al-Bidur Primary School. Students returned to the school on Saturday. Just 52 of the school’s 625 students were in attendance. (Noah Addis)

BAGHDAD — For the first time in more than six weeks, Lina Elia put chalk to blackboard yesterday, diagramming the circumference of a circle.

The sixth-grade math teacher had only four students in her class at Al-Bidur Primary School, but it was a start.

“Tomorrow,” Elia said, clasping her hands in silent prayer. “Maybe tomorrow we will have more.”

In schools across Iraq’s battered capital, children are trickling back to the classroom after nearly two months of war and upheaval. They’re reveling in the sight of old friends, reviewing forgotten lessons and preparing to cram for end-of-year exams, little more than three weeks away.

Their return brings some semblance of normalcy to a city sorely lacking it.

Even so, they represent a small fraction of Baghdad’s schoolchildren.

Most remain at home, their parents unwilling to entrust them to others at a time when armed gangs and American tanks roam the streets. In some cases, schools are no longer fit for their purpose, their interiors gutted by looters.

Guson Kindergarten lies less than a mile from Al-Bidur. Both are in Baghdad’s Kampsara section, a shabby neighborhood of dust-blown, two-story homes and auto repair shops near the Al-Rasheed military base.

Headmaster Fatma Hassan cleans up the mess left by Iraqi soldiers at Guson Kindergarten, which was used as a barracks during fighting. (Noah Addis)

Al-Bidur escaped virtually unscathed from the war. Guson did not.

On March 21, one day after the United States launched the first missiles into Baghdad, the Iraqi army claimed Guson as a barracks and weapons depot. Bearing written orders from Qusay Hussein, the son of Iraq’s president, more than 400 soldiers moved in, transforming the playground into a warren of trenches topped by sandbags.

Guson’s caretaker, a wizened, toothless man named Abdullah Hassan, pointed yesterday to a midsize RV in the playground’s corner.

“That’s where the general lived,” he said.

Hassan, 71, doesn’t know precisely when the soldiers left. On April 5, two days before Baghdad’s fall, Qusay visited the school and ordered the caretaker to move out.

Sometime afterward, the looters struck, carting off not only desks and chairs but toilets, light fixtures, ceiling fans, electrical wire and water pipes. For good measure, they broke almost every window.

Today, shattered glass, shredded books and a few pieces of smashed furniture litter the floors of classrooms cheerfully decorated with murals of American cartoon characters: Mickey Mouse, Porky Pig, Yogi Bear and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Abdullah Hassan, the caretaker at Guson Kindergarten, removes  a photo of Saddam Hussein from a wall. The school remains closed. (Noah Addis)

“This is a tragedy,” the school’s principal, Fatma Hassan, said as she piled debris in a courtyard. “Since this happened, I haven’t been able to sleep. I haven’t been able to eat. I don’t know how we can possibly open anytime soon. The entire school year is lost.”

Ismail Anush Elias, the supervisor for much of eastern Baghdad in Iraq’s newly reopened Education Ministry, said he hoped to have all schools up and running in a week, regardless of the damage.

“If they don’t have it, we will try to give them furniture, and in the future, we will build them better schools,” said Elias, who served in the same position under Saddam Hussein.

To teachers and administrators, the promise of new schools sounds like a pipe dream. All are working without pay.

“How can they build us schools when there is no money even for salaries?” asked Madeha Hussein Ali, 40, a teacher of Islam at Al-Bidur. “Saddam is gone and still we get lies from the government.”

Elias promised that salaries of $20 a month will start soon, perhaps as early as next week.

“We are working to organize things as quickly as we can,” he said. “This is all still very new.”

The primary goal, he said, is to persuade parents to bring their children back into the classroom.

At Al-Bidur yesterday, 52 students attended classes. Before the war, there were 625.

“The parents are afraid,” Principal Laila Yusuf Salih said. “They are afraid of kidnappings. They are afraid the war is not over. They are still afraid of Saddam.”

It’s little surprise some are skeptical of the Iraqi leader’s demise. During 24 years of authoritarian rule, he burrowed into the national psyche, starting with the youngest.

At Al-Bidur as at all Iraqi schools, the days once began with a pledge to Saddam. Painted on Al-Bidur’s walls are murals of the president and excerpts of his speeches.

“We are with you, Saddam,” reads a slogan in the courtyard.

Pre-war student artwork at Al-Bidur Primary School in Baghdad. Few students have returned. (Noah Addis)

From inside every textbook, a portrait of the smiling leader beams out.

Before the war, the children called him the Arabic equivalent of “Daddy.”

Today the daily pledge has been replaced by a song celebrating Iraqi nationalism. Hanging portraits have been removed. The wall murals, the principal said, will have to wait until the school can afford to buy paint.

Yusuf Walid Najib, 10, said he was “very happy” Saddam was gone, though he couldn’t articulate why. He was simply content to play with friends he hadn’t seen during his weeks of home confinement.

Hiba Mohammed, 11, found the return to school and a regular routine comforting.

“During the war, we did nothing,” she said. “We sat at home and waited for the bombs to come. It was scary. I feel better when I’m here.”

Still, there were reminders that dangers remain.

“If you see anything strange, don’t touch it. It could be a bomb,” Assistant Principal Virginia Nartanya told the students as they assembled on the school’s wide veranda for roll call. “Don’t go behind the school. Don’t wander into the grass.”

Yesterday was Al-Bidur’s third day open. The first two days, no classes were taught.

Nartanya, a white-haired career educator who greeted each child with a hug, said she wanted to give the students a chance to play with friends and decompress after the stress of warfare.

Inside the classrooms, students sat through lessons in math, geography and English, singing the ABCs and learning such phrases as “This is a table” and “That is a van.”

Classes in Arabic, history and science will resume as more students arrive.

Nartanya called the day a modest first step in what she hopes will be Iraq’s transformation into a modern, free-thinking society.

“Sooner or later, all the students will come back to school, and Saddam won’t be here to tell them how to feel and how to act,” she said. “They will develop their own minds. Then we can build a great country.”


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